(Reuters) - Known for the stunning beauty of the Alhambra palace, succulent free tapas and its picturesque location by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Spanish city of Granada has many sources of pride although its football team has rarely been one.
But that changed last Sunday, when Granada took advantage of the Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona being postponed by beating Real Betis 1-0 and climbing to the top of La Liga.
Barca have since retaken top spot, but Granada can reclaim it with victory at Getafe on Thursday.
They have taken La Liga by storm in their first season back with their consistent results, including beating champions Barca 2-0 in September, despite a meagre wage bill of 35 million euros ($39 million), the third lowest in the league.
Barca, by contrast, have a wage bill of 671 million, with Lionel Messi’s salary alone eclipsing Granada’s entire spend.
The club’s CEO Antonio Fernandez Monterrubio believes the team’s success is based on the huge changes made to their structure after they were relegated from the top flight in 2017.
“When we got here the first thing we wanted to do was create an identity based on values such as work, sacrifice, unity, fighting, perseverance and high standards while building a family atmosphere,” he told Reuters in a phone interview.
“We wanted everyone to buy in to this idea of the club as a family and make sure everyone had a similar profile and characteristics so we could keep growing. All players have to be part of that identity, that’s the secret of our success.”
Granada resisted the urge to spend big adapting to their top-flight return and largely stuck with the team that won promotion under Diego Martinez, the youngest coach in La Liga at 38.
“We needed commitment from our players so we had no doubt that if we were to continue to grow we had to preserve the same block of players and coaching staff. That is our family, our nucleus,” added Fernandez.
“Last year we had the ninth biggest wage bill in the league yet we got promoted by working hard, playing with our hearts and souls and being professional. We look at the reality, we use our resources as efficiently as we can and fight with what we have.”
Granada have already picked up 20 points, as many as in the whole of their last season in La Liga, which ended in humiliation as the team lost 12 of their last 13 games and finished bottom under caretaker coach Tony Adams.
For Fernandez, that team’s downfall was an over-reliance on players on loan from prestigious clubs. The fact that the squad was comprised of 21 nationalities did not help cohesion.
“Granada’s former model made no sense. In the previous two years the club had hired 72 players who they did not own. We had many players who knew they weren’t going to be here for very long and that affected their level of commitment,” he said.
“So our strategy was to hire more Spanish players and more players from the local region as that helps us form an identity. Before we only owned 18 percent of the economic rights of our players, now we own 100 percent.”
Granada’s superb results have inevitably drawn comparisons with Leicester City’s remarkable Premier League success in 2016, but the club are resisting any talk of challenging for the Spanish title or even pushing for European football.
“Of course we’re very happy about the results we’ve had but the table for us is anecdotal. We like that the fans and the city and province are so excited but we only see 20 points, which is half the amount we need to stay up,” Fernandez said.
They are, however, making long-term plans to ensure this season’s success is no fluke. They are already modernising their training ground, while plans are also in place to expand the capacity of their Nuevo Los Carmenes stadium.
“We are always thinking about the medium to long term, we need to be economically sustainable and to have a strong structure, to be able to maintain this momentum,” he said.
“Having one good year only to then fall away could ruin this project. There are many examples of that in football, we’re trying to minimise the risks of that happening to us.”
($1 = 0.8971 euros)
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis